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Issue: September 1, 2009

AUDIO FOR COMMERCIALS

By: Marc Loftus
Pros working on audio for commercials today will tell you their creative contributions help to bring in work, even more so than the latest equipment or the ability to offer packaged services. Greg Crawford at Crawford Communications says that while more and more clients are looking for ways to cut costs, they are open to partnering with audio studios creatively, and clients see those contributions as incredibly valuable.
The adoption of 5.1 soundtracks for commercials has been slow, despite the increase in HD broadcasts. And while stereo is still the norm, the call for surround seems to be building, if only slowly. Eric Thompson at Berwyn Audio estimates one third of the company's spot work is mixed in surround, but having talked with colleagues throughout the industry, he feels his facility is the exception.
One thing is for certain: advertisers only have a limited window to attract a viewer's attention, and original music or dramatic sound design can be a factor in grabbing interest or influencing a sale. Here's a look at some recent spots that have received music, sound design or mixing services.

BERWYN EMBRACES 5.1


Berwyn Audio is part of New York's Berwyn Editorial (www.berwynny.com), and benefits not only from its close integration with its parent video facility — more than 80 percent of their work comes from projects undergoing video post at the studio — but also because it's located in the same building as agency Euro, which feeds them lots of commercial work.
According to mixer/sound designer Eric Thompson, the studio has been around since the late '80s/early '90s, and consists of 10 editorial suites running Avid and Final Cut Pro, along with two Flame rooms and a graphics department. On the audio side, Berwyn has a John Storyk-designed 5.1 suite, along with a smaller stereo room for sound design work.
The main room is scheduled for an upgrade, with a Euphonix System 5 Fusion console and MC controller set to replace the existing Fairlight Prodigy. The studio uses Pro Tools, Nuendo and Logic 8 software, and Thompson says the new digital board will make interfacing with its different systems much easier.
"We wanted to go with console that would not paint us into a corner as far as our platform went," Thompson explains. They plan on switching out their Digidesign I/Os and putting in MADI boxes that connect to Digidesign cards. "Now, we'll have 142 total channels — 64 channels of Pro Tools coming out directly, whereas before we would have needed a lot of Pro Tools I/O to get that number of channels into the Euphonix."
Thompson says the tool of choice will depend on the job. "We do a little bit of switching back and forth depending on whether we are doing sound design, but end up primarily in Pro Tools for air mixes. Going down the road, that might change. We might decide to use Nuendo a little more and the Euphonix will be perfect for that because of the communication between the two."
The studio's positive relationship with agency Euro accounts for almost 75 percent of its work. Clients such as Dos Equis, Jaguar, Dr. Scholl's, Tinactin, Chivas, Claritin and Clearasil all regularly post there. Additional agency clients include Old Navy/FCB, Walmart/Martin Agency and Marriott/McGarry Bowen.
"Brett [Fuchs] gets booked a lot for the sound design stuff because he is a musician and composer," says Thompson. "He is very creative with sounds, and crossing over into the music area."
Fuchs created the salsa-inspired music featured in Dos Equis' popular "Most Interesting Man in the World" campaign. "It's a lot of fun," says Thompson of the campaign. Fuchs does the music and Thompson ends up mixing it in 5.1.
"When I talk to other facilities, they are not doing 5.1 as much as we are. I'm not sure if it's a question of the clients being comfortable in the facility doing the 5.1 mixing, [but] here it's a no brainer," says Thompson. "The editing suites are here. You are editing in HD. All of the HD machines are here, so it just makes sense to go next door and mix it in 5.1. [Clients] don't have to worry about laying back, syncing to picture or different frame rates or different resolutions. We can handle all of that here. We are connected to all of the different edit rooms via the Xsan server. It's great for the clients because they can walk down to an edit room and come back for the mix, or the Flame room and have three sessions going on at once."
Looking back at the Dos Equis campaign, Fuchs says the client wanted "something interesting and a bit Latin." The campaign was edited at the studio and the pitch he submitted for the soundtrack was well received.
"They kept coming back to me saying, 'We'd like to take that further,'" says Fuchs of his demo. "I rounded up some percussion players that I know. I recorded a heavy level of percussion. I wanted it to sound like classic salsa record because the commercials are supposed to look affected and old."
Tinactin's on-going campaign, featuring the voice of football personality John Madden, and the animation of Portland, OR's Bent Image Lab, also comes in for audio services. "They are a lot of fun," says Thompson. "We do them in 5.1. We record John Madden from his studio via ISDN and do all of the sound design here, and all the Foley work. They are really like mini movies."
It's a back and forth process for the Tinactin spots, as the animation is constantly evolving during production. "It's kind of like working on a feature — almost like getting dailies," explains Thompson. "We are getting a rough cut. Some shots are static — nothing is moving — and we throw some sounds in to suggest some movement. They'll do animation and maybe animate to sound. It's a back and forth process and we're never really locked until the last day. Those are all 5.1 mixes and it's a good thing too because there are so many sound effects that you just need that space actually to put that stuff in."

CARS, PIZZA & MORE!

Mixer Peter Rincon has been with Santa Monica's POP Sound for 14 years and has worked on numerous high-profile commercials, including HP's Super Bowl spots. The studio is home to five commercial mix rooms, two of which were recently upgraded.
AMS Neve AudioFile workstations and MMC consoles were replaced with Digidesign's latest generation of Pro Tools, which is paired with an ICON mixing console. Rincon's Studio K is also scheduled for an upgrade. He currently has AudioFile and an MMC, but when the company built the room around four years ago, Pro Tools, says Rincon, was also included.
"I worked with management to make sure Pro Tools was in the room as a fixture from day one. It's very fluid," he says. "For some sessions, it's a centerpiece. We are able to be flexible in this room with how we work and with what kind of project gets thrown at us. If we have something that is very dialogue oriented in terms of editing, I'll use the AMS workstation, because it's pretty strong for that. If there is a lot of clean up in the dialogue that has to happen, then I'll elect to go with Pro Tools."
Recently, he worked on a package of 14 spots for Toyota out of Saatchi promoting the automaker's "Cash For Clunkers" incentives. One features a guy in a drive-thru — a huge crane arm swoops in and grab his worn-out auto. As the car is lifted away, a new Toyota drops down to replace it. Similarly, another spot features a young woman, struggling with her keys and an arm full of packages at the mall. Before she can open her car door, the crane grabs her clunker, replacing it with a new Toyota minivan.
"It was a fun campaign," says Rincon. "There are variations of four basic spots and each one has variations in length so they can fit into a different media buy. We had a good week of work on it. There were picture changes that we had to accommodate and there were some copy changes that we had to record a couple of different times, the dialogue and announcer."
POP Sound handled the narration recording. The editing was done by HutchCo Technologies, and the sound design was done by LA's 740 Sound Design — both are in Los Angeles — before going back to POP Sound for the final mix, conform and layback.
Rincon says he will work on anywhere from one to as many as four commercial projects on any given day.
"Remember, a lot of our work is revisions," he notes. "We may be finished with a Toyota spot and then somebody at Toyota watches it and thinks, 'The guy's shirt it too yellow and the price on that offer is not punched up enough.' Then we have to come in tomorrow and do an hour's worth of fixes."
The studio bills an hourly rate, because "there is no way to estimate how many hours of creative noodling someone is going to want to do on their project," he notes. "We can finish a project in an hour or three days. I can't tell you how many changes someone is going to want to make or how indecisive someone is going to be."
Clients are typically there for the duration of a project, and Rincon welcomes the collaborative input they offer. "They traditionally will sit and supervise everything from beginning to end. I enjoy the collaboration and, by and large, the people I work with are excellent collaborators. Since it's their project, they are the ones making sure I prioritize what they want prioritized. Time is very valuable. None of these clients want me to waste a half hour on something that's  not a priority."
In addition to the Toyota work, Rincon was working on an on-going Domino's campaign out of agency Crispin Porter that touts the pizza delivery company's American Legends pizzas. The spots show different regions of the country — Philadelphia, Memphis, Los Angeles and locals who cheer for their hometown pizza style.
"We try to design sounds that relate to each particular scene — one is in a gym, one is a Mardi Gras scene. One has a California guy and he's in Long Beach, and there's a car in the background that bounces up and down, so I did the sound for all of those little nuances. It was a lot of fun."
He also worked on a series of Microsoft spots that are part of the software company's "I'm a PC" campaign.

ORIGINAL MUSIC, TIGHTER BUDGETS

At Atlanta's Crawford Communications (www.crawford.com), commercial work is part of a portfolio that also includes services for promos and longform projects. Greg Crawford, audio manager/senior sound designer, says the state of Georgia is offering production incentives that are helping to drive business. Three episodics are being shot in the area — Drop Dead Diva, Past Lives and Vampire Diaries — which bring ADR business to the studio. And that, paired with work for clients such as The United States Virgin Islands, CDW, the Marine Corp, and even locals like Coca-Cola and Turner, make scheduling an ongoing challenge.
Crawford has four rooms for audio post. Three are large mixing rooms based around Solid State Logic's Avant system, the fourth is a smaller room configured with Pro Tools. There is space available for a fifth suite, says Crawford, and the company is entertaining the thought of creating a dedicated music room, as they are seeing an increased demand for original music.
"We have a lot of good accounts," says Crawford, noting that the trend in commercial work seems to be clients' willingness to find cheaper options for doing their audio.
"It's not like the old days where they'd come in and spend days doing spots," he notes. "We've positioned ourselves to be more of a partner with the agencies, trying to get in on the creative early. That involves doing pitches for them, helping out with the pitch, doing original music. We are trying to give more value-added services."
Thanks to its video and graphics capabilities, the company can serve as a one-stop shop if necessary, or as a single-service provider, depending on the job. Crawford says adding original music capabilities to its list of services has helped keep clients in-house as well as keep their large rooms running.
"At a certain point, it was so much easier to write something than to go looking for needledrop [music] that was somehow inappropriate," he notes. "But, as rates went up, it became hard to do that. With these big rooms, you are trying to keep a room booked eight-plus hours a day at $360 an hour, so you have to look for another area. The model has changed a little bit and it seems like the way to beat competition at this game is to offer far more creative."
In addition to himself, the studio has four other musicians on staff. "If people have time between sessions and a project comes in, we crank out demos and that helps to drive business."
Crawford says he will have all of the composers submit a piece and there is usually one that the client likes. That team member will then flesh out the idea and complete the track. "These guys are younger and hip, and the stuff that they are writing is really cool," he notes.
In addition to original music, Crawford says the biggest growth area at the studio is "the business of fixing stuff — people sending out stuff that is just not ready to be broadcast."
The studio has Dolby's LM100 and DP570 for QC and encoding, and offers final layback to HDCAM SR. "It has become more of the universal format," he says of SR. "It's usually channels one to six with the 5.1 mix, and [channels] seven and eight with the stereo."
At press time, Crawford was working on a commercial project for The Georgia Lottery.

KEEPING IT FRESH PAYS OFF

Musician/composer Stephen Hermann moved to New York about 10 years ago, and was introduced to the sound-for-picture business after a friend at MTV, familiar with his original music, asked him to create a track for the MTV Sports and Music Festival.
Hermann says the experience left him "totally hooked," and in 2007 he set up official studio space on 9th Avenue in Manhattan. Explosion Robinson (www.explosionrobinson.com) is a two-room facility that he shares with composer Eddie Cooper.
Both rooms feature Nuendo software running on a Mac. Hermann has a collection of synths and keyboards that range from a Fender Rhodes to an assortment of inexpensive Casio releases. He mixes through an analog Toft Audio ATB16 console. Cooper mixes with an Allen & Heath MixWizard3.
Explosion Robinson was built out for music work and includes isolation booths, which Hermann says they'll use to record vocals or electric guitars. When a live sound is in order, they'll record right in the control room.
Recently, the studio created an original track for BeneVia, a new energy drink. The project came through agency Periscope in Minneapolis and called for a clean and simple track that matched the minimal visuals.
Cooper performed the acoustic guitar theme, which has a Johnny Cash feel to it. "They [are] targeting baby boomers," says Hermann, "and they wanted it to sound acoustic and clean. And we started thinking: 'What appeals to that generation?' But we didn't want it to sound like an old track. The whole idea behind it — because the visuals were so spares — was that the music would be sparse too. A lot of terms floating around were 'less is more,' 'keep it simple,' 'inviting and straight forward.'"
They recorded the guitar track in the control room using a Neumann U 87 mic.
"We did a few rounds in different directions to show the client and they were drawn to the simpler ones. That one was one of the first," he says of the final selection. "They just picked a few and we did a few more. We went in a few different directions, but they went with our first idea, which is always a joy."
Explosion Robinson has Blackmagic cards to support video reference, but in this case, worked strictly from boards because the track would ultimately drive the video edit.
"They said the music was very important," Hermann recalls. "There was going to be a lot of space with just music and voiceover. It was probably about a week, with the different versions."
The final stereo track was delivered as an AIF file to the agency via FTP.